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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

An El Niño winter is coming to Spokane. What will that mean for ski hills?

Skiers and snow boarders enjoy their time on Jan. 6, 2023, at Mt. Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

An El Niño weather pattern taking aim at the Inland Northwest means that this winter is expected to be warmer than average and may have less precipitation than normal, with the precipitation being more likely to fall as rain rather than snow. That, in turn, can be bad news for local skiers.

Daniel Butler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Spokane, said this will be the first El Niño winter in the last several years. While there are no guarantees, warmer weather should be expected, he said.

“On average, we get less precipitation than normal and the temperatures are warmer than normal,” he said.

Despite the forecast, the region could still get the occasional blast of frigid arctic air from the north, Butler said.

“El Niño is not the only driver of our weather here,” he said. “There could be the occasional cold blast.”

An El Niño weather pattern typically lasts into the spring, which could make it a tough winter for local ski areas. They usually open later, close earlier and have less favorable conditions in El Niño years.

“Less snow means less skiing,” Butler said.

Many local ski areas usually open around Thanksgiving, but so far there has been little snow even in the mountains. Lookout Pass, located on the Idaho-Montana border, reports on its website that it is “shooting for” a late November opening or “as soon as the snow gets deep enough.” The site notes that opening day and hours of operation are weather dependent.

On Wednesday afternoon, the mountain reported temperatures above freezing with a snow depth of 1 inch at the base and 6 inches at the summit.

Things are much the same on Mount Spokane just north of Spokane. Operators of the Ski and Snowboard Park report a planned opening day the first weekend of December. Live mountain cameras showed light amounts of snow on the hill on Wednesday afternoon.

Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg, Idaho, is reporting Nov. 24 as its opening day on its website, but notes that it is also dependent on snow levels. Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho, is also projecting an opening day of Nov. 24.

Shane Ruby, manager of Spokane Alpine Haus on the South Hill, sells and rents ski and snowboard equipment. He said he’s hopeful that the local ski areas, and by extension his store, will have a decent year despite the weather forecast. Even in El Niño winters, the ski resorts can get a good amount of snow if there are enough storms shoved this way by the Canadian Rockies, he said.

“We kind of get remnants,” he said. “Even in past El Niño years, because we’re further up here, we still got average snowfall.”

Last winter, Inland Northwest ski areas received plentiful amounts of snow. Schweitzer opened on Nov. 19 and Lookout Pass opened even earlier on Nov. 11.

Though people should expect conditions to be less record-breaking this year, Ruby said there’s no way to be certain what will happen.

“It’s really hard to tell,” he said of skiing conditions this winter. “You can only predict so much.”